Research and evidence-led teaching: From consumers to creators

Written by: Prof Peter Twining & Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Following up their previous article on how to interpret educational research, Dr Fiona Aubrey Smith and Prof Peter Twining urge teachers to shift from being consumers of research to co-creating and sharing their own knowledge and experiences…


Last time out we shared some practical tips about how to source and interpret the latest research efficiently and effectively (SecEd, 2021). But of course, from the perspective of educational research, classroom teachers have a unique position, being immersed everyday within the very space that all this research is focused on.

This brings with it valuable perspectives and insights and a huge potential contribution to the shared professional knowledge-base of all those working within and around the teaching profession. Here’s how…


Dipping a toe in the water

As teachers we invariably work through a traditional reflective practice cycle. We plan a lesson, we live out that lesson in practice, we reflect on that lesson, and we identify future needs for our students and ourselves based on that reflection.

However, this misses out an important step – namely finding out about what other people already know about the detail or nuance of what we are reflecting upon and identifying how that might further support our future plans.

This is where dipping into the existing professional knowledge-base can help in terms of signposting ideas, highlighting relevant considerations, bringing precision and clarity, and unearthing strategies.

For example, useful sources might include the Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit or resources from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) or Cambridge Assessment (see below for links). And, of course, our previous article provided some guidance and tips on how to source and interpret such research findings efficiently and effectively (SecEd, 2021).

However, as I have said, teachers have much to contribute to our shared professional knowledge-base – becoming contributors as well as consumers.


A unique research position

There are often heated debates about the relationship between teachers and researchers – with some arguing that every teacher is de facto a researcher, and others arguing that “insider research” can disproportionately bias the research focus/findings.

However, whatever your view, it would be hard to deny that a teacher has a unique perspective – being able to answer questions such as:

  • Within this school, what variables are affecting students before, during and after the lesson in question?
  • For each student, what are the many complex influences affecting their learning?
  • How do the influences affecting each individual student come together and affect group dynamics?
  • What expectations – economically, socially, culturally – are these students experiencing? How and from whom? How are the students responding to those expectations?
  • What are students’ lived experiences of in-school policies and strategies?

Teachers may not consider these as systematically as an outsider researcher might, but a good teacher will know how these affect students’ learning and the classroom environment.

That distinction is an important one – it means that the teacher will recognise these influences as an integral part of what is happening. Consequently, the teacher-researcher instinctively takes these influences into account when interpreting student learning experiences.

Repositioning teachers as co-creators of the professional knowledge-base recognises the unique perspective that teachers bring. It also values teachers as domain-specific experts.

There are those who argue that teachers tend to extrapolate broad recommendations based on their own surface-level experiences. Indeed, we have seen evidence presented for this argument – for example the finding that a majority of educational resource purchasing decisions are based on word-of-mouth recommendation rather than robust evidence of impact (BESA, 2017).

However, perhaps the way forward is in recognising that every perspective has its limitations – and that by working together and bringing multiple perspectives our shared knowledge-base grows stronger, more robust, better informed and thus more impactful.


Share and share alike

We encourage you to work with your colleagues to first access and utilise existing research findings and then share your own reflections and practitioner research – becoming co-creators of that professional knowledge-base.

We know from the research that repositioning teachers as researchers helps to “reprofessionalise” teaching. Engaging in (and sharing) practitioner research is also one of the most effective forms of professional learning (Twining & Henry, 2014).

For this to happen requires a shift in our conception of ourselves as teachers, and an investment by schools in supporting staff in undertaking practitioner research. Some practical ways to do this might include:


Research book club: Pairs or teams all reading the same article focusing on a shared issue and using the article as a basis for a discussion, planning session, shared observation or lesson study. Using a journal such as SecEd or Impact, the journal of the Chartered College of Teaching, is a great way to focus on timely issues from a robustly researched perspective.

Lesson study triads: As a group of three teachers with a shared focus area of interest (e.g. targeted questioning within interleaving), plan a specific lesson together (e.g. focusing on what you are going to try/explore/capture), carry out that lesson in parallel, and then reflect together – what did you each observe in your own classrooms? This is a great way to benefit from collaborative reflection but without the pressure of feeling observed – as the teacher is observing themselves. Try the Lesson Study handbook (Dudley, 2011) for more details and ideas about how to develop this approach.

Developing middle/senior leaders: As teachers take on leadership roles across subjects, strategies, phases, departments, pastoral matters or improvement priorities, their thinking will be evolving. These aspiring and developing leaders are in an ideal position to be engaging with the existing professional knowledge-base, exploring and testing ideas, and sharing their findings with colleagues and the wider profession. Encouraging our aspiring and developing leaders to embrace a research-focused approach to their new leadership roles benefits both the leader in growing their own knowledge and confidence as well as practice in the school. Many leadership programmes have research at their heart and opportunities for sharing and networking (National Professional Qualifications, leadership Apprenticeships, and Chartered Teacher status).

Embed research into your school’s systems and structures: Designate a member of the senior leadership team as the research coordinator, develop practitioner research projects around the implementation of your school development plan goals, devote time in staff meetings for discussions of research (your own and other people’s), encourage and support staff to undertake higher degrees – in short, become “research-invested” (see Twining, 2021).


Conclusion

The most important message to consider is that as we grow as teaching professionals, we owe it to our students and colleagues to shift from being consumers of research to becoming its co-creators.

  • Peter Twining is professor of education (innovation in schooling and educational technology) at the University of Newcastle, Australia, having formerly been professor of education at the Open University in the UK. He has also been a primary school teacher, initial teacher educator, head of the department of education at the Open University, and the co-director of the Centre for Research in Education and Educational Technology. Follow him @PeterT
  • Dr Fiona Aubrey-Smith supports schools and trusts with professional learning, education research and strategic planning. She is the founder of One Life Learning, an associate lecturer at the Open University, a founding fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, and sits on the board of a number of multi-academy and charitable trusts. Read her previous articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/seced-aubrey-smith and follow her @FionaAS


Further information & resources

Selected sources of educational research


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